Strength Exercises for Lower Back Spinal Arthritis

If you have arthritis affecting your lower back, a variety of core exercises can help reduce your pain and build muscle strength.

"A strong core, as well as strong back muscles, are key to managing spinal arthritis pain while standing," says Debbie Turczan, MSPT, Clinical Specialist in Physical Therapy at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. "These are the muscles that provide dynamic stability."

For people with spinal arthritis (anywhere along the spine), Turczan recommends doing beginner Pilates exercises to help alleviate the compression that comes with standing. Turczan is also an advocate of water exercise.

A woman doing a shoulder exercise
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Strong Muscles Help Manage Arthritis Symptoms

Spinal arthritis symptoms tend to worsen when you stand up and when you lie down. When you stand, the force of gravity can compress your spine, which can cause pain. When you lie down, you have less muscular support for your spine, which may increase compression and pain.

Strengthening the muscles around your spine can help support your back, which may help prevent pain and slow the progression of the disease.

So what is the best way to get your back muscles strong to minimize compression on your spine? I spoke with Hagit Rajter, a physical therapist at the Joint Mobility Center at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, who gave me a simple exercise program designed to do just that.

Strengthening Program for Low Back Spinal Arthritis

First, a word of caution: You should work with your health provider to be sure these exercises are right for your condition, and that you are performing them correctly. The exact version, along with the exact number of sets and reps you should do, may vary according to your spine condition, any other medical conditions you may have, and how fit you are. The following is for general reference only.

For these exercises, it's best not to do them in bed. Use a mat or blanket on the floor.

Abdominal Draw-In Maneuver

During this simple exercise, all you do is engage your abdominal muscles by drawing them inward. Rajter recommends doing 20-30 repetitions of this draw-in move once or twice per day to increase your core stability.

  • Lie supine (on your back) with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • As you exhale, bring your abdominal muscles in toward your back.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Relax your abdominal muscles and rest for 5 seconds. That's one rep.

Pelvic Tilt

A pelvic tilt can help build the strength of the muscles of your lower back and hips

  • Lie on your back.
  • Inhale and arch your back, which means moving your pubic bone so that it points toward the floor (and not the ceiling or your head).
  • Hold this for 3 seconds.
  • Relax for 3 seconds.
  • Next, flatten your back and pull your belly toward the floor (and toward your spine).
  • Hold for 3 seconds, then relax for 3 seconds.
  • Rajter recommends 20-30 repetitions one to two times per day.

Glute Bridge

You can do the glute bridge about 20 to 30 times, one to two times per day. But don't overdo it—if you do this twice per day, then do 10-15 each time.

  • Lie supine.
  • Let your head and shoulders relax. You'll be using your lower body.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles and your glutes (the gluteus maximus muscle is located at the back of your pelvis, toward the bottom).
  • Raise your hips so that you form a straight line from knees to shoulders.
  • Hold this for 5 seconds.
  • Come down.

Arm And/Or Leg Elevation

This exercise strengthens your abdominal and back muscles, which work together to control your core.

  • Start on your hands and knees (all fours).
  • Position your trunk in one nice, long line. This is called a neutral spine.
  • Begin by lifting one arm up, but keep your trunk steady. Place it back down again.
  • When you're confident you can raise one arm without also moving your trunk, try it with a leg lift instead.
  • After you've mastered the leg lift, try lifting one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously, again keeping your trunk stationary.

Rajter advises to keep your spine neutral and cautions you to watch for any rounding or arching of your back as you move your arm or leg.

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  1. DeWitt D. Spinal Osteoarthritis symptoms. Arthritis Health [internet]. Updated 26 Feb 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Email Interview. Turczan, Debbie, MSPT, Physical Therapist and Yoga teacher. New York City. September 2011.
  • Telephone Interview. Rajter, Hagit, PT, MSPT, Schroth Scoliosis Therapist, Cert. McKenzie Therapist, Advanced Clinician Physical Therapist, Joint Mobility Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City. September 2011.